When a baby is breastfeeding correctly his tongue will cover his lower gum ridge or teeth (if he has teeth yet) and he will not be able to “bite” the breast without biting the underside of his own tongue. Not only this, his mother’s nipple will be deep in his mouth, safe from being bitten. However, if a baby is not using his tongue correctly or is attached to the breast with mostly nipple in his mouth instead of plenty of breast tissue (a shallow latch)—it can feel like a baby is biting or clamping on the nipple. Later, especially during teething, some older babies may literally bite down on the nipple at some point during a feed. This is usually unintentional, they don’t know it will hurt! Depending on the reasons it happens or the reaction they get, this might become a game or a habit for a while.
Newborn baby biting while breastfeeding
The usual cause of “biting” in a very young baby is poor positioning. Find an IBCLC lactation consultant to help you with positioning and check out Breastfeeding Positions for Newborns and Latching Tips. Sometimes a baby with high muscle tone or a baby who is in pain may tend to clamp down on the nipple or areola (the darker skin around the nipple) causing pain despite apparent good positioning or attachment (latch)—see High Muscle Tone for further reading.
Older baby biting while breastfeeding
As it is biologically normal for a child to breastfeed for a few years, breastfeeding with teeth isn’t usually a problem. A baby can’t bite if he is feeding properly (explained above) and not all babies go through a phase of biting anyway. For those that do, biting usually happens while latching on at the start of a feed, during a break in the feed, or at the end of a breastfeed when they are falling asleep or feeling full. Some babies can tend to rest their top teeth on the breast during a feed causing indentations in the breast or grazing of the breast or nipple. As with newborn babies, a baby may change the way they breastfeed if they are in pain and “clamp” on to the breast.
Most cases of biting can be stopped by either preventing a bite by watching very closely for the moment baby changes his tongue position, or by teaching a baby that biting hurts.
Step one: preventing a bite
By giving your baby your focused attention and minimising distractions, biting can often be prevented. Watch for the moment your baby wriggles around or brings his tongue back to get ready to bite and be ready to stop the feed. You can do this by slipping your finger between his gums to keep them apart while you remove your nipple and break the latch.
Try to notice in which situations your baby tends to bite and avoid them. Examples include:
- When positioning is not as good as it could be or used to be—check Breastfeeding Positions for Newborns and Latching Tips
- At the start of a feed when baby is very hungry—try to initiate a let down (when milk starts to flow) before he comes to the breast
- During a feed when the milk flow slows—try breast compressions to increase milk flow
- At the end of a feed when baby is very full or very tired—be ready to break the latch if he goes to bite or scrape his teeth against the breast
- When trying to get your attention—keep your attention on your baby!
For more ideas to prevent biting in specific situations see “Why do babies bite?” below.
Step two: teaching a baby that biting hurts
Ending the feed
If your baby nips you despite your attempts to prevent it; many mothers have found quickly and calmly ending the feed helps their baby understand biting is unacceptable. You could also try putting your baby down in a safe place, for example on the floor at your feet for a few minutes. If baby starts to cry, you can offer another breastfeed but end the feed again if they try to bite. Even young babies can quickly pick up on what is expected realising “When I bite, mum ends the feed”.
Tell baby biting hurts
Alongside shortening a breastfeed due to biting, you can explain to your baby that it hurts and you don’t like it but do so calmly, without shouting or screaming. As above, even young babies can get the idea. Jack Newman, a Canadian paediatrician and breastfeeding expert, explains:
Bring the baby close to you like when you were feeding him as a newborn. This often works. If not, try not to startle him too much, but just tell him no, gently but firmly. If he keeps it up, then ease him off the breast gently and let him understand that the feeding is over. (Slip your finger into the corner of his mouth so that he doesn’t bite down on the nipple to prevent you from removing it!) Just as he can understand that he can’t pull hair, he can understand at this age that biting is not acceptable. Usually your baby will stop this behaviour after a couple of times of being gently and firmly told it’s not okay.
Some mothers have found that praising their baby when they feed nicely without biting can work well, after all your baby isn’t trying to hurt you on purpose.
Distracting a baby by offering a teething toy, starting a game, going for a walk outside or taking baby for a splash in the bath can sometimes help.
Why do babies bite?
Knowing the reason for biting can help to stop it. There are several theories put forward to explain a phase of biting including poor positioning, teething pain or other causes of pain, being poorly, frustration with low milk supply, and attention seeking.
- Ensure that baby is turned in to face the breast with full body contact (tummy to mummy).
- Your baby may have outgrown a previous feeding position and need more room to get a good latch without clamping down. If you have previously always used a breastfeeding pillow now might be the time you no longer need it.
- Some mothers find that tucking baby’s bottom closer to mum in a cradle hold or cross cradle can help to adjust the latch so the pressure is taken off the top teeth. Others have success with moving baby below the breast so that she has to reach up for the nipple instead of being able to dig her top teeth into the breast. Try adjusting baby position to see what helps.
Painful gums during teething can bring a desire to chew on things or to try different sucking techniques during feeding. Some babies may find that resting their sore gums on the warm breast is comforting and they may tend to scrape their top teeth against the breast causing grazing to the nipple or areola. Teething babies won’t realise there is a difference between teething rings and a breast or nipple, at least not until you help them realise by Steps One and Two (see above). Help for sore gums includes:
- Try offering a teething toy between feeds, this can be more soothing when the teething toy is chilled in the fridge first
- A variation on a teething toy is to offer a cold or previously frozen wet cloth to chew on under supervision e.g. a clean square of cotton towelling (flannel)1.
For further ideas and precautions see Teething by Kelly Bonyata.
Unexplained soreness during teething
Sometimes a mother may notice unexplained nipple soreness during teething without necessarily being bitten or feeling baby’s teeth. This may be because of a baby’s extra saliva during teething. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding suggests:
When some babies start actively teething, their saliva seems to increase and become more acidic. This can cause a rash on their face, on their bottom, or on your areola. Rinsing breast, bottom, and face a few times a day can help.
Some mothers find that using a little lanolin cream on the nipples after a breastfeed can be helpful. Note that some mothers can be sensitive to ingredients in topical creams and this can cause soreness in some cases.
Frustration at the start of a feed or with slow milk flow
Jack Newman believes the most common reason for biting is frustration with slow milk flow and he explores the reasons for low milk supply in a chapter of Dr. Jack Newman’s Guide to Breastfeeding called “late-onset decreased milk supply”. If your baby is frustrated with slow flow and biting because of it, you may also notice that he doesn’t seem to swallow much milk during a breastfeed and perhaps his weight gain is on the low side. An IBCLC lactation consultant can be a helpful partner in identifying the reasons for low milk supply. To help with slow flow during a feed try breast compressions and offer both breasts per feed and for ideas to increase your milk supply see How to Make More Breast Milk.
Check position and attachment
Older babies can wriggle around a lot and attach to the breast in all sorts of ways. Try to check your baby’s latch and positioning are as good as possible because a poor latch can affect milk flow and supply. If biting happens at the start of a feed due to frustration waiting for the let down, you could try to get milk flowing before your baby feeds by hand expression or a little pumping.
Biting due to fast flow
Some babies clamp down on the nipple when milk flow is very fast as they learn that this can slow the flow to a more manageable level. Making sure baby is in a good position at the breast can help them to cope with milk flow and see Oversupply of Breast Milk for more reading. Because biting can be associated with both fast flow and frustration with slow flow, it can be helpful to check with a breastfeeding specialist if you’re not sure whether either of these could be a factor affecting biting.
Hypertonic bite response (biting due to pain)
Hypertonic bite response is a term coined by lactation consultant and author Robyn Noble2 to explain a form of biting or clamping down that is a response to infant pain and/or a physical issue preventing a baby from breastfeeding normally. She notes that sudden onset of this type of biting in older babies such as soon after introducing solids (within one to four weeks), is often due to food allergy. She explains that biting associated with food allergy is more likely if baby poop was abnormal before solids and tends to also be associated with reflux or “colic”, increased fussing at the breast, farting, grunting, crying and sleep difficulties for baby. Noble’s tips to help manage hypertonic bite response in the older baby who might be suffering from pain due to food allergy or intolerance include:
- If biting follows a recent introduction of solids try discontinuing solids for a week and resume breastfeeding exclusively to see if there is improvement, perhaps baby was not quite ready for solids, try again slowly with just a taste of food (1/4 teaspoon) at a time.
- Try holding the breast firmly during a breastfeed to push more breast tissue towards the baby’s top lip
- Try resting a thumb on baby’s chin during a feed and press down whenever baby begins to bite or clamp down
- Identify dietary exclusions from mother’s or baby’s diet (usually cows’ milk products) to resolve baby’s gut pain.
For more information about food allergies see Milk Allergy in Babies and the book Breastfeeding Works! Even With Allergies, Robyn Noble, 2015.
At the end of a feed
Once a baby is full but still wide awake he may take the opportunity to play around and accidentally bite the nipple. Alternatively as a baby falls asleep at the breast, he might slip into a shallow latch and if anything should startle him in this position he may bite down. In both situations try easing him off the breast as soon as possible after finishing the feed to prevent accidents.
Game playing and attention seeking
Around seven to nine months in particular your little one may accidentally nip you with his brand new teeth or some babies seem to bite for attention. Try to avoid jumping and shouting excessively because if your baby thinks this is a good game, he may decide to try biting again for your entertaining reaction. Equally, too strong a reaction has frightened some babies so much that they were scared to breastfeed in case it happened again. This is sometimes called a nursing strike. If your baby shows signs of a nursing strike or breast refusal, try some of the ideas in How to Get Baby Back to the Breast. Staying focused on your baby will meet his need for attention as you watch for signs that he might be thinking of biting and try Steps One and Two above.
A baby with a cold who can’t breathe well, can’t feed well and may accidentally bite. Or he may have ear ache, tummy pain or just feel poorly causing him to breastfeed differently (see hypertonic bite response above).
A baby doesn’t realise he can’t do the same chewy things on the breast as he does on a bottle teat, dummy (pacifier) or spout of a cup. Some mothers find it helps to avoid spouted sippy cups and artificial nipples while others think babies can quickly learn the difference with a little help from Steps One and Two above.
When baby won’t let go
If your baby bites down and refuses to let go, Kelly Bonyata has the following suggestion:
If your baby bites down and doesn’t let go (most let go immediately without mom doing anything), there are a couple of things you can do: First, quickly place your finger between baby’s gums so you can pull away without (more) injury. If that doesn’t work, pull baby TOWARD you, very close to your breast. This will make it a little hard to breathe, so baby will automatically let go to open her mouth more and uncover her nose to breathe. A variation of this that some moms use is to gently pinch baby’s nose closed for just a second to get her to open her mouth and release the nipple.
The above article also has tips from other mothers and how to deal with the baby who digs his teeth into your breast or nipple.
There can be other causes of sore nipples see Causes of Sore Nipples. Some mothers find their nipples can be more sensitive during ovulation or just before menstruation irrespective of baby’s latch. For sore nipple care see What Can I Put on Sore Nipples?
It is biologically normal to breastfeed a baby with teeth. When a baby is breastfeeding correctly they are not able to actively bite the breast as their tongue will be covering their teeth. There are situations however when a baby might accidentally bite such as when they are falling asleep, feeling frustrated with milk flow or being playful. For most babies biting is a passing phase and doesn’t have to mean the end of breastfeeding.